FAO: Lifestock’s Long Shadow

Author: P. Heistein 9-5-2017

Here are some shocking facts from the 2006 United Nations FAO-report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” that few citizens know about, and which the meat and dairy industry prefer to ignore:

  • The livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. This is a higher share than ALL transport!
  • The livestock sector is by far the single largest user of land. The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to feedcrop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet.
  • 70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is now occupied by pastures. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of red meat. By consuming these products, we contribute directly to the slash-and-burn destruction of the largest tropical forest on earth.
  • The livestock sector uses over 8 percent of global human water use, is probably the largest source of water pollution, contributing to “dead” zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems and emergence of antibiotic resistance. The major sources of pollution are from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feedcrops, and sediments from eroded pastures. In the United States, with the world’s fourth largest land area, livestock are responsible for an estimated 55 percent of erosion and sediment, 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and a third of the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus into freshwater resources.

This 2006 UN FAO study is worth reading! The full picture is available on this link from the Dutch Wageningen Agricultural University: https://www.wur.nl/upload_mm/f/8/f/86d216c6-5b3c-4058-acb3-5be496892e41_Livestock%27s%20long%20shadow%20FAO%202006.pdf

Those figures were from 2006. The situation now in 2018 is WORSE!  A recent insect count in Germany and The Netherland, has shown that general insect populations in these two countries have declined in the last 30 years by 70-90%.  A mass extinction is underway and the culprit is; the industrial agricultural and livestock practices in these countries. It is hard to imagine a clearer case of ’the writing is on the wall.’ If one cannot trust an impartial, international body of scientists like the FAO to give us the data, then who can we trust?

In short, there is nothing whatever ‘friendly’ about modern livestock farming or a hamburger from MacDonalds. By buying livestock products like red meat from the supermarket and other food-chain outlets, we are directly causing the destruction of our planet, on a scale that is worse than the entire transport sector combined. There is no way to soften that fact, or ‘market’ our way out of this inconvenient truth.

From Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens” of 2014 comes another shocking figure: There are 7.2 billion people on earth, weighing a total of about 300 million tons. Our farmyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep and chickens – weigh about 700 million tons. The combined mass of all surviving large wild animals – from porcupines and penguins to elephants and whales – is less than 100 million tons. There are very few wild animals left.

Get the picture? This is just a snapshot of the disastrous effects of our livestock on planet earth. What is driving this livestock rampage? Nothing other than our diets. We eat too much meat, dairy and animal products, far more than is healthy for us. If we want our children and grandchildren to have a chance at a happy life in a healthy and clean environment, we will have to move to a more vegetable based diet. This would also improve our health and reduce health costs. The benefits of a plant-based diet are greater then the costs. The business-case is positive.

What stands in the way of this change? Economic interest groups, lobbyists, marketeers and our own inertia in changing ingrained attitudes and habits. The Netherlands has huge economic interests in; livestock, agricultural machinery, food processing and dairy.  45% of Dutch territory is Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA), one of the highest within the EU-27. The Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of eggs for consumption and egg products, and the third largest exporter of chicken meat, slaughtering 354 million birds each year. There are about 4,2 million cattle (2014) and 12,1 million pigs. In short, for a small country of 16 million inhabitants, it is incredibly livestock-intensive. This means that the lobbyists and farmer-supported politicians will do all they can to maintain ‘business as usual’. It will be a bitter struggle to turn Holland into a low-livestock low-carbon country. (Will the sea be coming over our dykes before the Dutchman gives up his cows to save his own children?) However, the key to change lies with the everyday shopper, not with the livestock industry or the politicians. How we individually choose to spend our Euro’s every day is the driver of the whole market-led economic system. Are we able to see behind the advertising that is thrown at us daily, and vote with our wallets for a different diet that is friendlier to the earth, our health and our grandchildren?

Let’s assume Harari’s data is roughly correct and make a few simple projections:
– the world now has 300 million tons of people. This will increase to 450 million tons of people as the population rises inevitably from 7,2 to about 10,5-11,5 billion. This is not because more children are born – the worldwide number of children each year has already flattered out – but because the existing people alive will grow older. (listen to Professor Hans Rosling’s marvellous TED-talks and other films about population growth on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FACK2knC08E )
– if these 10,5 billion people all eat meat like we do now, the current 700 million tons of livestock would have to increase to 1050 million tons. This would simply overwhelm the earth’s carrying capacity of soil and water, further cutting into the natural areas and virtually wipe out wild animals. The 100 million tons of wild animals we have now would drop to 50 or even 20 million tons at most in future.
This would – in my opinion – be a doom scenario for our children. Imagine a world almost devoid of wild animals and fish, simply because our livestock-rich diets leave no room for them.

Instead, we should perhaps hope for a situation like:
– 450 million tons of people (150% of what we have now; which is inevitable if we are not going to start killing people)
– 300 million tons of livestock (40% of what we have now)
– 300 million tons of wild animals (300% more than we have now)

At present there are 700/300 = 2,3 tons of livestock for 1 ton of people. In future we need to reduce this to 300/450 = 0,67 tons of livestock per ton of people, or 30% of the present value. This is just some simple maths, maybe you could write a PhD on it and get more accurate figures. But we don’t have time for delays since the broad message is already clear and we need to act on it. There is no time for ‘paralysis by analysis’ (to borrow a phrase from Richard Nixon) or for ‘fiddling while Rome burns.’

This means that anyone who wants a reasonable life for his or her grandchildren, and has some respect for wildlife, should move without delay to a diet with only 1/3rd the amount of animals and animal products that we consume now. This would also have major health benefits and save big costs in our healthcare system.

Don’t you agree, this gives food for thought? The FAO figures are truly shocking and we would be stupid to ignore them. If you love your grandchild, reduce without delay your consumption of all types of livestock products, by 2/3rds. This requires no investment and no delay. It starts this afternoon in the supermarket, leaving most livestock products on the shelf and choosing plant-based alternatives instead.